In August 2005 our church planned an offering appeal to plant new churches throughout the New York City area. We planned our appeal to occur on Sept. 11, 2005, the four-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then Katrina hit.
That hurricane left the single-greatest natural disaster our country had ever experienced in its wake. Like all Christians at the time, we knew we had to respond. Sept. 4 was Labor Day weekend, and we knew that a large percentage of our congregation would be gone, so we waited until Sept. 11 to make a church-wide appeal.
The only problem was that we already had one offering planned for that day.
After a lot of prayer, our leadership team decided to do something we had never done before—we would take up two large oﬀerings on the same day: one for New York City evangelism, and the other for Katrina relief. So on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005, 19 days after Katrina hit, we took up two offerings.
I stood up before the church and said,
“Our church has never made two offering appeals at once. I know we are not an overly wealthy congregation, so I’m sure some of you are conflicted about where to send your money. It’s my prayer that you will be generous to both. However, if you have to choose, give your money to help start new churches in New York City to reach people who aren’t Christians yet. … Trust me, if someone in New Orleans was truly a Christian and understood what their faith was all about, they would stand up here and tell you they’d rather be homeless before they stood in the way of someone going to heaven.”
A man in the back of the auditorium immediately stood up and made a huge commotion, then pointed his finger and screamed at me for saying something he considered so reckless and hateful. He kicked chairs on the way out. I thought I was going to have an all-out mutiny on my hands.
Since that day I’ve had a lot of time to think about how my words sounded to some of the people in attendance. I’ve thought about my words long and hard, and if I had to say it all over again, I would have said it exactly the same way. I wouldn’t have changed one word.
Let me share three reasons why.
Scripture, Not Human Compassion, Guides a Disciple’s Priorities
There aren’t two versions of Christianity that Christ followers get to choose from—the one modeled by the compassionate Jesus, and the other modeled by the “go forth and spread the gospel” Jesus. They’re the same Jesus. At the last day all believers will be held accountable for both requirements. Every teaching of Jesus applies to every single Christian, at all times, in all locations, without exception.
Never forget that the Bible alone should dictate our priorities as Christ followers, not human compassion.
Jesus Didn’t Need to Die for God’s People to Care for the Poor
Let’s be very clear about one thing: Jesus died on the cross because caring for the world wasn’t enough. More burdensome than having an economic disparity problem, a health problem, or a gender inequality problem, humanity at its core had a sin problem. That’s why Jesus came.
New people come to our church all the time and tell me, “We should stop trying to convert people and simply do our best to make this world a better place.” I’ll remind them that Christianity is a religion meant to solve a sin problem. It is not a religion meant to solve all the problems of this world. God charged the followers of the risen Jesus with bringing the possibility of spiritual rebirth to the human race. While we are sent to carry out that mission, we also happen to love the poor, care for the downtrodden, and fight for the rights of the oppressed. We do that out of love. But followers of Jesus know that our ultimate mission is not to make this world a better place to live, as important as that is. Our mission is to give every human being on earth the news that their relationship with God can be restored through Jesus’ death on the cross.
The Early Church Prioritized Evangelism without Ignoring Social Justice
A cursory reading of the New Testament shows that the first Christians made evangelism their absolute top priority. As they focused on that goal, they also worked on social justice issues, but they never veered off course.
For example, take the story in Acts 6 in which widows were overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The way the apostles addressed the problem teaches us something about their priorities.
So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2–4)
By stopping what they were doing and fixing the problem of food distribution for the poor, the apostles affirmed the absolute importance of caring for the poor in the life and ministry of the early church. At the same time, however, the apostles made it clear which activity was the most important.
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